Crucial to curb spread of hate on social media

This article is more than 12 months old

Legal enforcement, content moderation and education needed to help counter problem

US President Donald Trump's retweets of anti-Muslim videos first circulated by an anti-immigrant, far-right British party were just the tip of the iceberg.

From Myanmar to the US, controversial posts by political leaders and public figures have sparked a growing debate about how social media may be facilitating the spread of hatred and discrimination.

But who should decide the limits of freedom of expression online and how? We have come a long way from the days when Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were hailed as enablers of free speech and democracy.

Such platforms have helped to democratise the public sphere.

Activists can organise, disseminate information and mobilise more effectively than ever before.

We must bear the positive aspects of the power of social media in mind when we consider how best to tackle its flip side: the way social platforms can be used to spread hatred rapidly.

Last year, politicians in many countries deployed social media to spread hate-filled agendas.

Amnesty International's latest annual report on the state of human rights documents a global rise in state-sponsored hate and chronicles the ways governments and leaders are increasingly peddling hateful rhetoric and policies that seek to demonise marginalised groups.

Mr Trump's transparently hateful travel ban on citizens from some Muslim-majority countries was one of the prominent examples.


What can we do to preserve the good that social media can offer while countering its corrosive effects?

There are no simple answers.

The right to free expression protects ideas many people find offensive, and there are many instances where racist, sexist, xenophobic or other hateful material is not prohibited under human rights law.

Still, freedom of expression comes with responsibilities, and there are cases under human rights law - such as incitement to violence or child sex abuse imagery - where it can legitimately be restricted.

Complexities tend to arise because the definition of "offence" is subjective.

Any attempt at regulation must also consider the fact that the right to be able to say things to which others will object is one of the foundations of an open society.

For all their potential for abuse, social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter provide a space for expression and access to information that is much freer than anything available in the past.

Yet, this freedom is fragile - for example, Amnesty's research has shown that online abuse can have a silencing effect on its targets.

So what is the solution?

There are three types of actions that can be taken to counter hate on social media and the Internet: legal enforcement, content moderation and education.

States should have in place laws that prohibit advocacy of hatred and take legal action only in the clearly defined cases allowed by international human rights law.

Specifically this is when there is a clear show of intent to incite others to discrimination, hostility or violence against a particular group.

Nevertheless, many governments have threatened social media companies with strict rules on intermediary liability, which means companies may be held liable for content posted on their platforms.

The problem is that intermediary liability can easily be used to restrict freedom of expression and to force companies to censor their users for fear of legal consequences.

Regardless of government regulation, companies have a responsibility to avoid causing or contributing to human rights harms.

Content moderation by social media companies is therefore a crucial part of the solution: It does not require legislation and hence does not open doors to unjustified restrictions on freedom of expression.

All major platforms have community standards and rules of conduct in place to deal with advocacy of hatred and discrimination, which would work well so long as they did not conflict with human rights law.

Making them effective requires companies to consistently uphold these rules and to devote resources to address violations.

This means improving the tools available to users to report abusive content, employing and training content moderators, and measures to restrict troll networks.

Reducing the spread of hate on social media also requires education. This is perhaps the most vital intervention.

Legal enforcement and content moderation can only treat the symptoms of online abuse.

Whether it is through school programmes or campaigns on social media, the only viable long-term way to reduce racism, sexism and bigotry online is by understanding and addressing the roots of discrimination in our societies. - REUTERS

The writer is the director of global issues at Amnesty International.